It’s the first day back at school after the holiday season for the young students of the Pat Roberts Centre. In one room, a little boy rocks gently back and forth in a swing as soft music plays in the background. Downstairs, a teacher covers her knees with a white sheet and then encourages a little girl to “climb up the snow mountain.” From another room comes the sound of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” being sung as someone beats time on a drum.
These activities are key to the growth and development of the children, all of whom have special needs. Located in a cozy, home-like building in Pierrefonds, the centre works with children up to the age of 5 who have autism spectrum disorders, language or developmental delays or behaviour problems.
The children, who attend morning sessions (almost three hours) for two, three or four days a week, do not need a formal diagnosis to be accepted into this preschool program. The centre also offers a “kindergarten readiness” program for ages 4 and up (four afternoons a week) and an infant-stimulation program for newborns to age 2 (where a specialist meets with a parent and child in their home).
Coordinator Denise Currie says the centre serves a key role for families coping with a child (or children) with special needs. “Many of the families are in major crisis when they phone here,” she says. Parents are often the first to notice a problem with their child’s development. However, once the family’s doctor makes a referral for an assessment, it can often take a year or longer to receive a formal diagnosis and treatment. But in the meantime, the child — and family — needs support and services.
That is why many of them turn to the Pat Roberts Centre, which was first established in 1958 and named after a teacher and volunteer who worked to raise awareness and funds for the education of special needs children. The centre can serve about 40 young students and offers its services in both English and French. The programs are open to all families, whether from the West Island, Montreal or beyond. (A few families commute several hours each day.) Currie tries to keep the fees as low as possible — it costs $240 a month for a child to attend three, half-day sessions, for example.
The centre’s educators have backgrounds in occupational therapy, speech pathology and early childhood education. Classes are kept small — a ratio of four students to one teacher — and volunteers also help out. There is an emphasis on encouraging communication and social interaction, skills that are very important for a child to master before he or she enters school. Each month, children are introduced to a theme (winter is the subject for January) and games, crafts and other activities are organized to reinforce it.
Currie hears from parents every day about the challenges of raising a child with special needs. “Parenting these kids is very intense,” she says. “Too often, parents don’t know where to go or what to do.” So she spends hours helping link parents to local resources and putting them in touch with other families of special needs kids. “I’m constantly giving the parents sheets with information, articles, anything I think will help.”
The centre has a parents’ committee that organizes monthly lectures as well as outings such as apple picking or visiting local parks. Parents can also get together at monthly “coffee breaks” for discussions. And Currie will often introduce parents whose children are facing similar challenges so they can share coping strategies.
It’s all part of the centre’s mission to get families services and support as early as possible. Currie takes pride in the fact that she or another employee answers all the calls so parents have access to information immediately. By doing so, parents can get the help their children need early rather than waiting years for a diagnosis and treatment.
The Pat Roberts Centre has spaces available. For more information, call (514) 696-5144.